What Converting from the Air Force to Space Force Means for One JROTC Unit

Leaders of the Air Force JROTC program at Space Coast Junior/Senior High School are shown outside its classroom.
(From left) Cadet Lt. Col. Laura Sexton, retired Lt. Col. Joe Stevens and retired Senior Master Sgt. John Werner stand outside the Space Force JROTC program's classroom at Space Coast Junior/Senior High School in Cocoa, Florida. (Stephen Ruiz/Military.com)

When it came time for Laura Sexton to choose an elective during her freshman year of high school, she ruled out taking a physical education course.

Sexton wanted something else, anything else. So she selected a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps course. Four years later, she said it turned out to be one of the best decisions she could have made.

It got better this year when her unit at Space Coast Junior/Senior High School in Cocoa, Florida, converted from the Air Force to Space Force.

"It's kind of cool that I get to be part of this happening, because we're paving the way," Sexton, a cadet lieutenant colonel, told Military.com. "We're making history."

Sexton is a corps commander for her unit, one of 10 nationally in JROTC to agree to change its affiliation from Air Force to Space Force. On Tuesday, Durango High School in Las Vegas became the first unit to make the switch official. Space Coast's changeover ceremony is scheduled for January.

The other eight JROTC programs moving over to the Space Force are:

  • Arlington Career Center, Virginia
  • Del Norte High School, New Mexico
  • Falcon High School, Colorado
  • Huntsville High School, Alabama
  • Klein High School, Texas
  • Shadow Mountain High School, Arizona
  • The Academy for Academic Excellence, California
  • Warren County High School, North Carolina

Three primary criteria were used to select the units to switch, Col. Johnny R. McGonigal, director of Air Force Junior ROTC, said in an email. 

All units had to volunteer for the conversion, be dispersed regionally and reside close to space-related agencies, he said. Space Coast Junior/Senior High is about 40 miles east of Orlando and 15 miles southwest of Kennedy Space Center, where the space shuttle missions were launched.

About 1,200 cadets are spread across the 10 units that converted.

Retired Lt. Col. Joseph Stevens and retired Senior Master Sgt. John Werner lead Space Coast's JROTC program, which began during the 2008-2009 school year. Stevens said coming under the auspices of the Space Force, which was created in December 2019, has been a smooth transition for the program's 123 students.

"The principles are basically identical," Stevens said. "We wear different uniforms, but what this program is about is making better people, better citizens for our country and nation. That is the common theme, common denominator for all programs, so whether it's Air Force, Space Force, any of the other branches, we're all going to have the same mission of making better students, better citizens."

Besides coursework, cadets are required to participate in community service projects. Space Coast's JROTC currently is collecting canned goods to donate to a local food bank. Cadets participate in drills and ceremonies, are subject to uniform inspections, and undergo fitness training. They study military history and customs.

"The core curriculum, in general, for the day-to-day operations right now is still the same Air Force JROTC curriculum, which incorporated space concepts within it," Werner said. "Our headquarters, in coordination with Space Force Delta 13 [at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama] and the Space Force leadership team, is in the process of looking at our overall curriculum, and we'll make the adjustments when we get to that point as it continues to evolve down the road."

The Air Force JROTC curriculum currently consists of about 40% instruction on leadership, 40% aerospace science and 20% on fitness and wellness, McGonigal said.

"Both Air and Space Force concepts will continue to be integral content in the new curricula," he said. 

McGonigal said transitioning more Air Force JROTC units to the Space Force remains in the discussion stage, but this initial class has created a buzz. 

It's one of the more notable changes since 20 JROTC units moved under the auspices of the Air Force in 1966. The first Army JROTC unit was formed at Fort Leavenworth High School, Kansas, in 1917, and the 1964 Reserve Officer Training Corps Vitalization Act expanded JROTC to all military branches.

Sexton is thrilled to be a small part of this new frontier.

"We're doing great things, and I'm excited to see where we go," she said.

-- Editor's note: Where Space Coast Junior/Senior High is in relationship to Kennedy Space Center was fixed from an earlier version of this story. 

-- Stephen Ruiz can be reached at Stephen.Ruiz@monster.com.

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